A True Food Myth Buster: Paul Dawson makes food science fun
Paul Dawson has spent much of his academic career providing answers to the question: “Can I eat that?” From the famous “five-second rule” and popular games such as beer pong, to faux pas such as “double dipping” and drinking out of the milk carton, Dawson’s research on common food safety practices has garnered him widespread attention in local and national media. While his research spans far beyond gastronomic urban legends, Dawson has used such projects to spark interest in the science behind food safety in both his students and the public.
A professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Dawson first became interested in food safety and product quality during his undergraduate career at Salisbury University. He initially planned to become a physical education teacher, but his classes in health and nutrition soon led him to the field of food science. Turning his focus to food quality and safety, Dawson earned an M.S. at the University of Florida and completed a Ph.D. and postdoctoral study at North Carolina State University before joining the Clemson faculty in 1991.
Since coming to Clemson, Dawson has taken part in unique research that has amassed media attention on both a local and national scale. Many of his popular studies first took shape during brainstorming sessions in his Creative Inquiry course for which students conduct semester-long research projects.
“I try to let students really run the team creatively, and I guide them on parameters,” Dawson said.
After deliberating ideas and choosing a feasible project, the Creative Inquiry team spends the rest of the semester conducting tests and gathering data. Team members present their results at Clemson’s Focus on Creative Inquiry Poster Forum in the spring.
In the fall of 2010, the Creative Inquiry group decided to focus on bacteria transfer during beer pong, a popular drinking game in which ping-pong balls are thrown into cups of beer. In addition to lab tests, students conducted field research during a home football game by collecting samples from beer pong games played at various tailgates. The results, which confirmed the transfer of bacteria from the ping-pong balls to the drinks, soon made the front page of The Tiger student newspaper.
In addition to the beer pong study, Dawson’s Creative Inquiry classes have focused on the transfer of bacteria in other common practices such as blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Dawson enjoys the enthusiasm his students exhibit when they are free to take creative control of the research projects.
“The students are doing something they’re interested in and curious about,” he said, “but while they’re having fun, they’re learning more than they realize. Through plating and counting bacteria, they’re gaining skills in technique.”
Because many of the Creative Inquiry studies have been published in recent years, students also have a tangible product of their work that will appeal to potential employers and graduate schools.
In addition to academic journals and scholarly publications, Dawson’s work has been featured in The New York Times and National Geographic, and on such networks as CNN and Fox News. He has been interviewed multiple times on national radio and television broadcasts about his research on the “five-second rule” and “double dipping.”
“I think people have latched on to these studies because they can identify with them,” Dawson said. “They think ‘Hey, I do that!’”
And while the results have shown that many common food-handling practices do transfer bacteria to the food, Dawson says that his research on food-handling myths is not necessarily intended to change certain behaviors.
“I always tell people who ask me how dangerous these practices are that people have been doing it for years and it’s not a huge hazard,” Dawson said. “But it does raise awareness on the importance of how food is handled.”
One benefit of the attention Dawson has received for his work with food myths is a growing interest in other projects that are perhaps less known to the general public. For example, Dawson is currently working with colleagues in the chemical engineering department to develop sustainable, bio-based films to use in food packaging. He also tests means of food preservation through healthy substances that contain natural antioxidants.
Through these projects and the food myth studies, Dawson hopes to raise awareness about the science of food safety and to allow his students to get creative with the learning process.
“It always comes back to the students,” he said. “It’s nice to get accolades, but in the end, the students are why we’re here. They enjoy learning the material, I enjoy teaching it, and we get to provide relevant information to the public through our projects. It’s a win-win-win.”